Before the season began, Peter Gammons predicted that, should be remain healthy, Josh Beckett would be the American League Cy Young Award winner. Well, so far, Beckett has remained healthy, and it appears as if 2006 could be the first time in his career that he tops 200 innings. But the Cy Young? Not so much. Beckett’s 11-5 record shows nothing so much as how deceptive a pitcher’s won-loss record can be; his 5.12 ERA is more indicative of how he’s pitched this season. Indeed, last night’s 7-run, 8-hit, 4 1/3 inning effort is beginning to feel disturbingly familiar.
So what’s the problem? It doesn’t seem to be his stuff: he began last night’s game by getting Jason Kendall to whiff on a 97-mile-per-hour fastballâ€šÃ„Ã®and he’s reached 95 in almost every start this year. Here’s one theory, and it’s one that’s at least been discussed within Yawkey Way: Beckett has never learned how to pitch.
At first blush, that probably seems like a ridiculous statement. Beckett shutout the Yankees on short rest to clinch the 2003 World Series for the Marlins, and has been cited as one of baseball’s marquee pitchers for as long as he’s been in the game. But that could be the problem. For as long as Beckett’s pitched, he’s been someone blessed with preternatural ability and lauded for his skills. In 1999, he was the first high school righthander to be selected second overall in the draft in more than two decades. Baseball America named him the top high school prospect in the country, and he was USA Today‘s High School Pitcher of the Year. He spent only one full season in the minors (2000), and has been a full-time major league starter since he was 22. Compare his development to that of Jonathan Papelbon, a college closer whom the Red Sox converted to a starter in the minors, asking him to develop a fuller repertoire of pitches. In the NLâ€šÃ„Ã®or, as us American League snobs like to call it, AAAAâ€šÃ„Ã®Beckett could, more often than not, rely on his natural ability to overpower and overwhelm the opposition. In the AL, he’ll get his share of strike-outs, but he’ll also find that there are plenty of hitters who can use the power he generates to smash a ball into the stands. (It’s no accident that Beckett leads the league with 27 home runs allowed.) When he’s not blowing pitchers away, he’s often getting lit up.
So what does that mean going forward? When it’s working for him, Beckett has a jaw-droppingly nasty curve, and there’s no reason he can’t learn to mix in a little Greg Maddux with his Nolan Ryan. (This is what’s allowed Pedro Martinez to be one of the all-time greats. Witness Game 5 of the ALDS in 1999, when Martinezâ€šÃ„Ã®essentially pitching on guile and gutsâ€šÃ„Ã®shut down the Indians without any of the power he used to whiff five of the first six batters in that year’s All-Star Game.) But that transition is going to take a bit of timeâ€šÃ„Â¶
An aside: I’m convinced the reaction to Beckett as compared to Matt Clement should serve as case study A in how a player’s demeanor, and perhaps even his physical appearance, can have as much to do with fan reaction as his on-field performance does. Last year, Clement finished at 13-6 with a 4.57 ERA. He helped anchor an exceedingly shaky rotation’s first-half. And he was hit in the head by a screaming line drive. But Clement–asthmatic, hunched over, in need of glasses–appears kind of shlubby, and, even though he never tries to make excuses, he’s often looks as if he’s sporting the Derek Lowe Face. Beckett, on the other hand, looks and talks like a warrior. Last year’s reaction to Schilling as compared to Keith Foulke is another example. The Sox wouldn’t have won the World Series without either one, and Foulke’s performance in the ALCS was as gutsy and brave as anything I’ve seen. But Schilling is well spoken; Foulke is defensive and has a tendency to lash out. Schilling was consistently applauded just for making it out to the mound; Foulke took as much abuse as anyone on the team.